Minority Report

Slavery and Natural Rights

Libertarians are often disgusted by the state precisely because the state’s power is predicated on aggression.  But if pressed to say what statist policies they find most disgusting, the libertarians throughout history will tend to focus their just vitriol on two evils in particular: slavery and war.

First, we will analyse why slavery is unjust, and second, we will apply our analysis to the 2002 libertarian science fiction film Minority Report.

Slavery in the 1800s

Virtually everyone reading this probably agrees that slavery is evil.  And it is.  But it is not enough simply to say something is evil.  When one rejects an institution, one ought to have a rational explanation for one’s rejection.  Thus, let us look to the abolitionists, to see what led them to reject slavery.

In these united states, self-ownership was the rallying cry of the nineteenth-century abolitionists.  While the first individual I know of to promote the concept of self-ownership was John Locke, it was the American abolitionists who took the concept to its logical conclusion and claimed, correctly, that if every individual has a natural ownership over her or his own body, then slavery must be, anywhere and everywhere, unjust and illegitimate.  Two of the most famous abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass (the latter of which was himself a runaway slave), famously called slaveholders “man-stealers,” since enslavement was the violent theft from the individual of control over her own body.

If natural law dictates that every person has the natural right to be free to control her own body, and to do with it as she pleases so long as she does not infringe upon anyone else’s equal, natural rights, then how, you may ask, did slavery persist?  Would not the victim, you may ask, be able to take the aggressor before a private arbiter, who would then rule that the slaveholder had violated the rights of the individual and should therefore amend the situation by paying restitution to his victim?

Salmon Portland Chase (1808–1873)

Well, yes, but only if one lives in a truly free market.  Unfortunately, America does not now have a free market, nor did it have a free market in the antebellum South, and nor does it have one in the fictional world of Minority Report, which is set in 2054.  Instead, Americans live under a statist system, where states usurp the power to make rules and decisions, and regulate what people may or may not make, do, sell, own, or reproduce, without regards for human rights.  (And, when I say states, I mean to refer to all levels of statism.  I regard the federal government just as much a state as I regard “state-level” states.)

A truly free market cannot coexist with statism.  And it was statism, ultimately, which protected the slaveholders from punishment for their crimes against the natural rights of those they enslaved.  Slavery cannot exist without government.  Thus, the abolitionist Salmon P. Chase wrote, in 1845, that slavery is

the complete and absolute subjection of one person to the control and disposal of another person, by legalized force.  We need not argue that no person can be, rightfully, compelled to submit to such control and disposal.  All such subjection must originate in force; and, private force not being strong enough to accomplish the purpose, public force, in the form of law, must lend its aid.  The Government comes to the help of the individual slaveholder, and punishes resistance to his will, and compels submission.  THE GOVERNMENT, therefore, in the case of every individual slave, is THE REAL ENSLAVER, depriving each person enslaved of all liberty and all property, and all that makes life dear, without imputation of crime or any legal process whatsoever.  This is precisely what the Government of the United States is forbidden to do by the Constitution.  The Government of the United States, therefore, cannot create or continue the relation of master and slave.  Nor can that relation be created or continued in any place, district, or territory, over which the jurisdiction of the National Government is exclusive; for slavery cannot subsist a moment after the support of the public force has been withdrawn.

Slavery in 2054

In the fictional world of Minority Report, the state is not simply protecting slaveholders from their just deserts, but is itself actively enslaving the innocent.

The twenty-first century sees the development of a psychoactive drug called neuroin, known on the street as clarity.  More amazing than what the drug does to its user, it has a dramatic effect on the babies of those who use the drug while pregnant.  Most neuroin babies do not survive, but those who do are plagued with nightmares of murder.  Remarkably, it turns out that the murders dreamt by these children are precognitions of actual murders which will occur within a certain radius of the dreamer.  Because of their precognitive ability, these gifted—or cursed—children are called “Precogs.”

A woman named Dr. Iris Hineman, while working at the Woodhaven Clinic, was the one who discovered that the children of neuroin addicts were foreseeing real events in their dreams.  In an effort to try to help them, she developed an interface system, the very same interface system that the Department of Precrime uses to upload and record the Precogs’ dreams.  Thus, we are informed that Dr. Hineman created Precrime through “a series of genetic mistakes and science gone haywire.”

The three Precogs to whom we are introduced are named Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell.  The most gifted of the three is Agatha, who exhibits not only the ability to predict murders in her dreams, but also a few minor things while awake.  In any event, all three of these innocent children have been enslaved by the state.

“Bathed in nutrient water,” writes Christopher Rudge, “and with sensitive neuron amplifiers attached to their heads and their bodies wasted, the three creatures are fed a combination of sedatives and dopamine to keep them in an endless slumber, dreaming perennially of future murders.”

Samantha Morton as Agatha

Creatures?  As Precrime Chief John Anderton says early in the film, “It’s better if you don’t think of them as human.”  Perhaps more accurately, it is easier for the Precrime officers to ignore the fact that they are violating the natural rights of innocent people, that they are forcing individuals to do something against their will, if they pretend that they are dealing, not with humans, but with tools, with meaningless cogs in their machine.  Perhaps that’s another reason why they call the three individuals “Precogs”: it helps the statist elites to pretend they are not humans.

But they are humans, and they do have rights, the most basic of which is their right to individual sovereignty, to self-ownership.  Indeed, all other rights derive from this.  As one commentator online wrote, “Among other libertarian aspects, I found [Minority Report to be] quite Randian in flavor, in the slavery of ‘people of ability.’  It showed people with a ‘talent’ expected to use it for the benefit of society.”  But no matter how much the elitists may claim that the enslavement of these innocent humans will somehow benefit the “greater good,” slavery remains an intolerable evil.

See also

Sheldon Richman, “Slaves Contracts and Inalienable Will,” The Libertarian Forum 11, No. 7–8 (July–August 1978).